Case of the Chia Seed: How superfood trends develop

Molly Soat
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
  • To make its way into packaged food makers’ recipes and marketing messaging, a foodstuff, flavor or ingredient often needs to start by building awareness and interest just as a new product would.
  • Thanks to savvy marketing strategies, consumers’ growing interest in eating well, and chia’s inherent versatility as a nutritional additive, chia has grown from infomercial territory to become a food marketer’s dream as a desirable product attribute in cereals, crackers and more.  
  • Production of food items that contain chia seeds grew 1,353% from 2009 to 2013.

From pets to protein powder, the marketing of the chia seed is a case study on how a superfood trend develops.

A foodstuff doesn’t become a popular product additive or attribute overnight. To make its way into packaged food makers’ recipes and marketing messaging, a foodstuff, flavor or ingredient often needs to start by building awareness and interest just as a new product would. Take quinoa or kale. Both recently rose from the realm of “earthy-crunchy” mainstays to become featured ingredients on restaurant menus and packaged food labels—and both now rank as product attributes that pack some serious marketing power for health-conscious consumers.

Chia’s ascent to trendy foodstuff territory has been a bit different. Once reserved mainly for ceramic planters in the shape of a sheep or a puppy—or, say, Jerry Garcia’s head—chia seeds have gone from grass to “superfood,” and during that journey from kitchen window décor to the dinner plate, chia benefited from pre-established name recognition but faced the challenge of crossing categories. Consumers knew that it existed, but few knew that they could eat it—or that it offered a host of nutritional benefits.

Thanks to savvy marketing strategies, consumers’ growing interest in eating well, and chia’s inherent versatility as a nutritional additive, chia has grown from infomercial territory to become a food marketer’s dream as a desirable product attribute in cereals, crackers and more.  

From Grass to Food

Grown in tropical and subtropical regions within 15 latitudinal degrees of the equator, and native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala, chia is a green, grassy plant in the same family as mint and sage that sprouts from tiny black or white seeds and reaches nearly six feet at full height. The chia plant grows wild in its native geography but also is easily cultivated in the right climate.

Chia’s stalks were used as a hardy food staple alongside maize in Mayan and Aztec cultures. The plant’s flowering stalks also were used as an offering in early religious rituals, and its seeds have been a staple of people’s diets for thousands of years. The seeds are grown commercially in the plant’s native Mexico, and they’re also now grown in countries including Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Australia to keep up with global production demands.

Chia seeds are packed with nutritional benefits, including high amounts of fiber, protein, antioxidants, calcium, phosphorus, manganese and omega-3 fatty acids—the name “chia” comes from the Aztec word for “oily”—but until recently, most U.S. consumers only knew chia as the verdant, grassy plant adorning kitschy Chia Pets, which started earning a spot in consumers’ indoor gardens in 1980.

Chia Pet creator Joe Pedott knew that the chia seeds, themselves, were edible and healthy when he came up with the idea to sell Chia Pets as houseplants. “We heard that the chia seeds were very healthy, and that they had an ancient Aztec and Mayan history to them, but we said, ‘We’re not in the health food market,’ so we stayed with what we knew,” says Michael Hirsch, vice president of marketing and advertising at San Francisco-based Joseph Enterprises Inc., which owns and markets the Chia Pet brand.

Chia is both a common household item and a household name in the U.S., thanks to Joseph Enterprises. Since the Chia Pet’s launch nearly 35 years ago, Joseph Enterprises has expanded its Chia Pet line from the original “Chia Guy” planter to include pop-culture characters such as the Tasmanian Devil and Britney Spears.

Joseph Enterprises certainly can be credited with building chia’s “brand” awareness in the United States, but the company admittedly missed the boat on marketing the seeds as a food item early on, Hirsch says. Four years ago, Hirsch and his team watched as other chia brands entered—and succeeded in—the health food market. “One of our friends at [a longtime drugstore client] called us about four years ago and said, ‘There’s this product called chia and it’s your chia seeds.’ We had been buying chia seeds forever, so we knew the plant, the farmers, everything,” he says. “We knew that other companies were marketing chia in a new way. At that point, there was more talk about chia. I knew we had to get off our duff. We own this brand. Let’s get going. It was time.”

Joseph Enterprises now sells raw chia seeds as a health supplement. The packaging features a small image of the iconic Chia Pet sheep, so consumers can recognize the connection right away, Hirsch says. While consumable products have to go through an approval process by the FDA, which is a costly extra step that isn’t part of the Chia Pet production process, Hirsch says that the hoop-jumping is paying off. “The chia seed has become a very marketable product in a totally new way.” Joseph Enterprises declined to reveal sales data, but Hirsch says that the company now sells nearly as many raw seeds as it does Chia Pets.

While some health-food fans began sprinkling chia seeds on their cereal long ago, for the most part, chia languished on kitchen windowsills across the U.S. until the 2009 release of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a book in which author Christopher McDougall explains how chia seeds were a Mayan and Aztec endurance snack when running long distances because of the sustained energy that the protein-rich seeds can provide. The book sparked consumers’ interest in chia-based recipes and prompted a slew of social media mentions, says Stephanie Pauk, global food science analyst at London-based research firm Mintel Ltd. “We’ve seen chia explode from an energy boost for runners to more of a general energy boost for all consumers,” Pauk says. “Chia sits within a larger trend of consumers looking for nutrient-dense foods, moving away from low-sodium or low-sugar diet foods, where the focus is the absence of ingredients, to more nutrient-dense foods that really promote protein and omega-3s and fiber, all in a tiny package. Consumers are looking to get more bang for their buck, nutritionally speaking, versus a classic diet food.”

In 2010, 27% of U.S. consumers reported that they’d heard of chia as a food item, and by 2014, the Harleysville, Pa.-based market research and consulting firm Natural Marketing Institute projected that awareness had reached 37% of the U.S. population. “Grains and seeds are the latest thing,” adds Maryellen Molyneaux, president of the Natural Marketing Institute.

“[Consumers] are really looking for multiple health benefits in one food. … Now consumers are looking for this added value of different types of seeds, flax seeds and chia seeds, and even radish seeds, in their products.”


In the Mix

John Foss, founder of The Chia Co., a Melbourne, Australia-based chia brand founded in 2003 that sells direct to consumers and in bulk to food manufacturers, helps clients develop educational messaging to promote the benefits of chia. Foss began growing chia on his family farm when he wanted to leverage the “health and wellness” trend in the food industry. Through his research, he learned about chia’s nutritional benefits, and about the dearth of suppliers in the global marketplace. “Chia is clearly the richest plant source of omega-3, fiber and protein combined, so why isn’t it in everyday foods?” Foss says. “Why aren’t food manufacturers using it and why isn’t it on the shelves of supermarkets all over the world? The answer was that no one had grown it in a way that it was premium-quality, with consistent supply and stable pricing, and available to consumers every day.”

Growing conditions at Foss’ farmland in the Kimberly region of Australia lend themselves well to the equatorially oriented plant, and he now tells his own farming story within The Chia Co.’s marketing materials. “Consumers are looking for a connection to their food,” he says. “We really look to tell that same message in our chia promotional activity so that customer can understand where chia comes from, how we grow it and why we grow it.”    

Foss first began selling his chia seeds globally in 2003. The brand originally was conceptualized as an international B-to-B chia supplier, and Foss’ first clients were health food stores in Asia and Australia. With an eye toward expansion, Foss and his team began attending global grocery trade shows to make B-to-B connections.

The brand didn’t start marketing the seeds straight to global consumers until 2010, when then-CMO April Helliwell (currently the brand’s chief operating officer) designed the brand’s orange packaging. In 2011, The Chia Co. struck a deal with U.S. health food giant Whole Foods, and its consumer sales strategy developed from there. “In 2012, we started to expand out to the rest of the natural channel stores and then in 2013, with the launch of the Chia Pod brand, we were able to gain access to more mainstream supermarket channels and convenience stores in the U.S.,” Helliwell says.

Chia Pods are the brand’s individually packaged, oatmeal-like snack packs, and they’ve allowed The Chia Co. brand to reach consumers who wouldn’t buy raw chia seeds but would try a well-packaged snack, Foss says. His initial target audiences, suppliers at health food stores, were knowledgeable about the seeds and the demand for them that “healthy, engaged” consumers were creating, but to expand his company’s reach, Foss created a concerted educational marketing program that included in-store demonstrations at Whole Foods and other grocery stores around the country, where brand representatives would tout chia’s health benefits, make simple chia recipes and hand out product samples. The brand has invested heavily in these kinds of in-store promotions and point-of-sale displays to pique consumers’ interest, Helliwell says.

Foss’ competitor set is limited to a few consumer-focused, raw-seed chia suppliers, mainly Joseph Enterprises and Milwaukie, Ore.-based Bob’s Red Mill, so The Chia Co. has thus far kept a tight grip on its food-manufacturing clients like PepsiCo and Chobani. Since The Chia Co. has the bandwidth to track its chia seed production at each step, it can help large manufacturers that have to account for ingredients’ supply chains when making claims like “all natural” on their packaging. “The big food companies have very strict food quality and safety standards,” Helliwell says. “They work with us because they can trace and audit our chia all the way back to our farms, and have assurance of the quality and nutritional content. We supply these customers with a certificate of analysis on every single batch of chia that we supply them because they are making on-pack nutritional content claims for which they need to have documented evidence.”  

The Chia Co.’s marketing team also advises manufacturers about how to integrate the seeds into their products. They help design product packaging and develop the wording of health claims and content for marketing materials. “We look to tell a cohesive message in our chia promotional activity that’s pushed out through the manufacturers so that customers can understand where chia comes from, how we grow it and why we grow it,” Foss says.

The Chia Co. taps health and wellness experts to become advocates for the brand, contributing healthy recipes and wellness tips to the brand’s social media channels and marketing assets. The company’s website features testimonials from dietitians, chefs and customers, and images of Foss and his chia farm. The brand also employs world-champion surfer Kelly Slater as a brand ambassador, who’s well-suited to the brand because he represents a healthy, natural lifestyle, Foss says. Registered dietician Emma Morris fields customers’ questions when submitted through the brand’s website. In 2014, the brand created an Instagram-focused social media engagement campaign in which users tagged pictures with #HealthierPlace for a chance to win a trip to The Chia Co.’s farms in Australia. Helliwell says that the marketing team is planning for more TV ads in 2015, since its first TV campaign in Australia, which ran through 2014, was a success.

The Chia Co. conducts market research on the popularity and adoption of chia in the global marketplace, and uses it to help the manufacturers create new chia-based products. “The chia industry is in its infancy, so there is not a lot of market research on chia available,” Helliwell says. “We’ve built our own bank of [research] on the functional attributes of chia in food manufacturing. We have built this up over the past six years, working with third-party research facilities … to provide formulation and processing advice [to manufacturing clients].”

The Chia Co. relies on its manufacturers’ willingness to cross-promote to help build the company’s brand awareness. “Manufacturers are putting our logo on their packing, and that’s been really positive for us,” Foss says. “As the awareness in the community is increasing, we’re seeing the demand for more chia-based products. There’s been a huge increase in the amount of products including chia in the past three or four years.”

Production of food items that contain chia seeds grew 1,353% from 2009 to 2013, according to Mintel, and the majority of new chia-toting products are being released in the U.S. Forty-seven percent of new chia product launches happened in the U.S. in 2013, according to Mintel, compared with 12% in Canada. Chia seeds have little to no taste and become gelatinous when immersed in liquid, so they can easily be added to processed and home-cooked foods, including yogurt, baby food, crackers, snack bars and breads. They’re also used in smoothies and juices as a natural, grain-free thickener without the animal byproduct found in gelatin.

Brands such as Kashi and Dole have incorporated chia seeds into products including chips, crackers and granola. Baker’s Delight, a Victoria, Australia-based bread manufacturer, works with The Chia Co. to create a white bread made with white chia seeds. Foss says that the brand markets the white bread to moms who are looking to “trick” their kids into eating healthy bread. The brand went from making one type of chia-laden bread in 2010 to offering 10 varieties today.

A Leading Indicator

Seeing “chia” on a bag of bread or a box of crackers has become a signal to consumers that the product might offer more nutritional benefits than its grocery store shelf-mates, so it can serve as an effective differentiator. But “new” ingredients like chia can require some education, Molyneaux says. “One of the interesting things about chia is that while consumers want it, they can’t talk about the benefits of it. … It’s something that the brands have to talk about a lot more.”

Thanks to online buzz and word of mouth—and basic point-of-sale exposure—many consumers now are aware that chia seeds are edible, and nutritionally advantageous, but as Molyneaux notes, many aren’t quite sure of why chia seeds are good for them, or how much they’d have to eat to reap the benefits.

It takes more than two tablespoons of chia—much more than is found in one granola bar—to reap the full health benefits, Pauk says, and marketers aren’t broadly publicizing that fact. And most marketing messaging regarding chia, at this point, revolves around its nutritional makeup rather than its potential health benefits. “There are a lot of claims of the health benefits of chia that haven’t been validated,” she says. “There are no established facts that chia will lower your blood pressure, for example, so marketers are focusing, instead, on the nutritional elements of chia.”  

More often than not, chia is being incorporated into product lines that already are health-focused or that already rely on nutrition-based claims. Sixty-six percent of new chia products that came on the market in 2013 also said “gluten-free” on the label, according to Mintel.

Kashi, owned by Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg’s, carries three varieties of chia-laden granola bars: a Chocolate Almond and Sea Salt flavor and Cranberry Lemon chewy bars. The brand’s line of Crunch Granola and Seed bars also has a Chocolate Chip Chia flavor. Two of these packages feature a small but obvious note that says “with chia” on the front label, while the other features the word “chia” prominently in the product name.

Trendy superfoods often go mainstream when they’re incorporated into packaged foods—or things that people already eat, says Harry Balzer, vice president and chief industry analyst who has studied food consumption trends for nearly 40 years at Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm NPD Group Inc. “People won’t just eat a handful of chia. These things become more popular when they’re given to the population as a new way to address something you already did.”

Chia and its fellow superfoods have become marketing claims in and of themselves. The mere mention of acai berries on a juice label or quinoa in a can of soup might make one product stand out from another—and help it make its way into consumers’ grocery carts, says David Aaker, vice chairman of San Francisco-based marketing consultancy Prophet, author of Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success and a Marketing News columnist. “It’s like gluten or organic: People don’t do a lot of research or spend the time to try to understand it. They just know that it’s generally good and not bad, so why not use it?”


Baked with Love—and Chia

Sandra Holl, owner of Floriole Bakery, a small, local operation in Chicago’s affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood, quietly introduced chia seeds into one seasonal summer menu item two years ago, with little promotion or marketing behind it. “Food trends are a crazy thing,” she says. “Food is something we consume every day, but it also goes through big changes, like fashion. … As chefs, we’re subjected to these trends, but at the same time, we’re just trying to make good food that people will buy.”

Chia is making its way into more mainstream restaurants and products as recognition grows and people are more comfortable with trying it. Holl found a way to incorporate a bit of the trendy superfood into her butter- and sugar-laden menu. “There’s a tipping point where people become comfortable with an ingredient that wasn’t normal for them a year or two ago,” she says. “It’s all about getting used to it, seeing it in several places and then being curious enough to try it. … Four years ago, if we had put chia seeds in something, no one would have known what that was, but now it seems normal. Even my parents eat chia seeds at this point and they’re so not foodies.”


Chia by the Numbers

Percentage of U.S. consumers who have heard of chia:

2010 - 27%

2014 (projected) - 37%

Percentage of new products going to market that include chia seeds:

2009 - 4%

2013 - 55%

Top two countries with chia product launches in 2013:

U.S. - 47%

Canada - 12%

Percentage of products claiming chia benefits on packaging:

Low/no/reduced allergen - 69%

Gluten-free - 66%

Vegan - 37%

Organic - 38%

High/added Fiber - 24%

Antioxidants - 20%

Sources: Mintel Ltd., Natural Marketing Institute


This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Marketing News.

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Molly Soat
Molly Soat is a staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. E-mail her at msoat@ama.org.
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